Fresh Water, Salt Water: The Double Meanings and Standards of the Word “Special”

Hello, readers,

Happy October! Cooler temperatures edge ever closer, leaves are beginning to drop from the trees, the coffee shop is selling pumpkin scones and salted caramel hot chocolate, and I am a happy girl. Fall is one of my joys in life. But as we know if we look up the meaning of the word “joy,” both in the dictionary and in the Bible, joyful doesn’t necessarily mean happy. I can tell you I am joyful, but the truth is that a lot of the things in this world make me sad. Such is a peril of having a melancholy temperament, I suppose. But that’s also what fuels my advocacy and these posts. So tonight, I’m back to write a new one. Once again, its theme is words, and a particular word. It is a word that has developed a double meaning, and a double standard. It’s the word “special.”

As Cass Irvin said, “special” is a pretty word, but what it really means these days is “segregated.” Now, he didn’t say “these days”; I did. That’s because, like many words in our lexicon, “special” didn’t always have certain negative connotations. It’s a word like “gay” or “coke” or “crack.” “Gay” used to mean “happy.” “Coke” used to refer exclusively to that sugary brown drink you serve over ice. And “crack” used to refer to “cracking” jokes, cracking peanut shells, or what your window got when you threw a baseball at it. (What you yourself got was probably more painful). And “special” used to mean unique. It used to mean “extraordinary” or “distinctive,” “exceptional” or “particular.” All good words, just like those other words are good.

But now, suddenly, “gay” means “homosexual” (which opens this innocent word to a lot of slurs and bad jokes, including the usage of the same word to mean “stupid” or “uncool.”) Coke and crack now refer to an illegal drug. And “special,” though still used for its “good” reason, now has an evil twin. This same word is now used to mean “segregated” or “less than” or “separate,” especially and I would argue exclusively, when it comes to people with disabilities. And what huts about that is, “separate” and “different” have always been synonyms for “special.” But it seems we’ve forgotten how to use the positive synonyms, and just focused on the ones that make one certain group of people look and feel different–like aliens (the little green ones, not as in “foreign-born.”) Like, dare I say this, non-people.

But the problem with “special” doesn’t stop here, folks. The main problem with this word’s current usage is the fact that we still use it in its positive form–just not when we’re talking about people with disabilities. For example, a parent says to a kindergartner, “You’re special to me,” hoping to instill a sense of individuality and confidence. Schoolchildren earn a “special” reward because they did well on a state test, or because they’ve been well-behaved. When people celebrate a birthday, the honoree is singled out because it’s his or her “special” day, set aside to celebrate all their positive traits and the blessing of having them around. When someone is especially talented in an area like academics, athletics, or the arts, we may say he or she has a “special” gift.

Now, contrast that with the way “special” is used in terms of disabilities. “Special education”–which often means a segregated classroom away from the rest of the school, possibly even in an entirely separate wing. This could also even mean a separate “special” school only for people with disabilities. “Special buses” or “special” transportation like paratransit–transportation methods where the convenience of the passenger is often not considered, some people with disabilities would rather not use, and which some schoolchildren would actually hide from rather than ride on. “Special” homes for people with disabilities, only. “Special,” “disabled only” outings, where a group is often made to travel together throughout the entire outing, which singles out that group as “different” in public. The result of that? Stares, rude comments, or rude gestures, such as people moving away from the group on the “disabled only” outing at the restaurant or the movies, because they’re sure they’ll be “disruptive.” (And just a side note here: “disabled only” outings are, arguably, often not as much fun as they could be–some group homes, for example, use the same outings repetitively, even on the same schedule. I guess they think people with disabilities can’t feel boredom).

See the discrepancy? When we say “special” in reference to a person without a disability, it’s meant as a positive, uplifting thing. But when we say it in terms of the community of people with disabilities, it’s a form of singling out in a negative way. To be blunt, for people with disabilities, “special” often looks, sounds, and feels like a punishment or “tolerance” in the worst sense of the word–as in, “We don’t really want you here, but since we can’t get rid of you, here, go stay in this ‘special’ place we set aside.” I’ll be even more blunt–it’s a little like crating a pet!

Of course, you might say that part of the way to combat that is to use “special” the way it was meant to be used around people with disabilities. And that’s true; people with disabilities want and need to feel exceptional, unique, and extraordinary. But when someone uses “special” the “right” way, after a person with a disability has seen and heard it used the “wrong” way so often, it kind of loses some of its punch. Sadly, “special” is becoming a word that we may eventually want to drop from our vocabulary–unless we all work together to use it the right way, for everybody. And I think if we do that, people with disabilities will stop feeling “special.” Instead, they’ll get a chance to feel like we all should–equal, but extraordinary.

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